Abraham Lincoln’s open coffin will be available for public viewing during the Memorial Day weekend.
Mr. Lincoln, himself, will not.
“I couldn’t find a volunteer to fill in,” Greenwood Funeral Home vice president John Goobeck joked, before formally folding his hands in front of him and reassuming his dignified, professional manner.
The traveling exhibit is a replica of the coffin in which the 16th president of the United States is entombed in Springfield, Ill.
“Interesting piece of history,” said Jack Waugh, an area Lincoln historian and author.
The replica coffin will be on display Sunday and Monday inside Greenwood’s Mausoleum and Independence Chapel, beneath the silent gaze of eight life-sized white marble statues depicting America’s founding fathers.
A narrow six-sided box.
Six feet, six inches long.
The walnut coffin is covered head to toe with black cloth, as black as the 9-car funeral train that panted and chuffed, mournfully, across 1,654 miles, from Washington, D.C. to Lincoln’s hometown and final resting place.
Ornate silver handles adorn the sides of the coffin, along with shiny silver studs arranged in a decorative pattern.
The lid is folded open, revealing a white satin pillow.
‘He saved the Union’
Lincoln presided over the country during the Civil War, which claimed more than 620,000 lives. The dead exceeded the nation’s loss in all its other wars, from the Revolution through Vietnam.
Lincoln became a casualty on April 14,1865 when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va.
“Some historians say we wouldn’t honor Lincoln the way we do today if not for the assassination. I don’t agree with that,” said Ralph Gary of Grapevine, a Lincoln historian and author of Following In Lincoln’s Footsteps.
“Lincoln overcame problems that other men couldn’t have handled. He saved the Union. The more I study him the more I admire him. He is our greatest president, and that’s not just my opinion.”
A rich history
Lincoln’s coffin has an intriguing history of its own.
In 1865 the box cost about $1,500, more than the typical American worker earned in a year, according to historical accounts.
The original coffin, unlike the five replicas made by the Batesville Casket Company in Indiana, was lined in lead and included a silver plate in the center of the lid inscribed with the president’s date of birth and death.
Lincoln’s embalmed body was placed aboard the funeral train, which began its 13-day journey across seven states. The “Lincoln Special” with the president’s portrait mounted above the cowcatcher slowly retraced the route Lincoln had traveled to Washington as the president-elect on his way to his first inauguration.
Millions gathered along the margins of the railroad track. At major cities along the way, the public was invited to pass by the president’s coffin.
The replica coffin used in the exhibit was made based on the only known surviving photo that pictures Lincoln lying in state at City Hall in New York City.
In 1876 thieves plotted to steal Lincoln’s corpse from an above-ground marble sarcophagus in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. Their ransom demand included $200,000 in gold and freedom for a counterfeit ring engraver who was in state prison in Joliet, Ill.
They broke into the tomb before lawmen foiled the plot.
‘Lincoln is big stuff’
The coffin was subsequently moved several times — mostly due to reconstruction of the Lincoln Tomb and fears for the safety of the president’s remains.
In 1901 Lincoln’s coffin was permanently buried inside a cage 10 feet deep and encased in two tons of concrete. Beforehand, the coffin was reopened a final time. One of the 23 people who viewed Lincoln’s remains was J.C. Thompson.
“His features had not decayed,” Thompson recalled, in 1928, according to numerous accounts. “He looked just like a statue of himself lying there.”
Lincoln died almost 150 years ago but the passage of time hasn’t diminished public interest in this iconic figure. The story of Abraham Lincoln is America’s Greek tragedy.
“Lincoln is big stuff," Waugh said. “He always will be.”
Historians Waugh and Gary won’t be surprised if many find themselves drawn this holiday weekend to the beauty and grandeur of Greenwood’s peaceful chapel.
There, at its center, a black box, in stark relief, rests atop a platform ringed by red velvet rope and softly bathed in natural light.